Victims of the deadly hostel fire in Wellington were living in conditions many of us now see as unacceptable. There was shock and disbelief at the state of the accommodation but where did we think they were sleeping at night? Somewhere secure, clean, warm, and dry?
New Zealand is a far cry from such a reality.
Anyone surprised by the fact our most vulnerable are living in less-than-ideal conditions hasn’t been paying attention.
When the blaze first broke out at Loafers Lodge last week, nobody could imagine the horror that would unfold.
At least five people dead, more than 90 left homeless, a homicide investigation under way, and a man charged with two counts of arson.
Then there were the stories of what life at the lodge had been like. Dirty, cramped, bed-bug infested, loud and miserable - a place you would only stay as a last resort.
A resident of the hostel said just weeks before the deadly fire previously-evicted tenants had been returning to the building to cause damage and harass other residents. The front door had even been kicked in by vandals, they said.
Such accounts prompted a “very, very angry” James Shaw to blast the state of the country’s housing and building code, asking how it could allow the most vulnerable residents to “live in substandard accommodation with a reasonable chance of lethality”.
These are concerns which have been raised by many people for many years now.
There are countless stories about people living in cars, the horrific state of emergency housing, and rentals riddled with black mould making our children sick.
We know the state of our housing market is preventing people from finding somewhere to live in the capital.
There were serious red flags before the pandemic.
The number of Emergency Housing Special Needs Grants for Wellington City skyrocketed from 143 in March 2018 to 960 by September 2019.
Trade Me figures from that time showed Wellington was the most expensive urban centre to rent in and the squeeze on the rental market was leading to the increase in emergency housing grants.
A single mum with four children living in a motel was one of many examples of people living in emergency housing. The situation was described as demoralising, difficult to establish routines, and unstable.
I also happened to be looking for a flat at that time as a 25-year-old working professional and the situation was grim even for me.
There were more than 50 people at a flat viewing I went to, none of the rooms had wardrobes and there was no other storage or outdoor space. The washing machine was rammed against the shower. At least it actually came with a washing machine though.
Covid-19 exacerbated our housing woes.
In 2021 terrifying accounts of violence, drug use, and intimidation emerged. One man who attended a packed meeting on crime in the central city said he lived next to emergency housing accommodation where rival gangs were living on the same premises.
At the same time, house prices in Wellington were booming, with the region’s average property value hitting a peak of $1.141 million in March 2022, according to the OneRoof-Valocity House Value Index.
Wellington is often seen as a city full of public servants, where people enjoy stable incomes, and can be a bit arty-farty.
But there is another side to the capital, where the likes of Loafers Lodge has been housing a transient community for years.
These people are a part of the city’s fabric and some of the victims were even well-known characters on Wellington’s streets like Mike the Juggler.
I wonder how many people thought about where he actually lived as they passed by his smiling face and entertaining tennis balls.
Our society is becoming defined by inequality and the growing divide between those who have assets and those who don’t. People who have been struggling on the fringes of our housing market are now being forced out completely.
Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge said you wouldn’t stay at Loafers Lodge unless you had very few options.
“It wasn’t the most salubrious place you could stay, obviously.
“But it was still a community of people, and they were still housed,” he said.
This problem is not limited to Loafers Lodge, or even Wellington, it’s New Zealand’s shameful housing reality.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers but unless something drastic happens, it’s hard to see it improving.
Nothing changes if nothing changes.
• Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.